Discover more from The Sports Column
LIFE IS WONDERFUL WHEN STETSON BENNETT IV CONQUERS ALL
Bigger than Georgia breaking a 41-year title drought, higher than Kirby Smart's vertical leap and far above the politics of college football, a former walk-on inspires underdogs everywhere
The adults, once again, were saved by the kids. College football's overlords can't decide how to maximize the TV billions awaiting them, continuing to muck up and slog down a convoluted postseason that should be the greatest in sports. Specifically, why were Alabama and Georgia playing on a frigid night in Indianapolis — not the ideal way to celebrate a sport's romance — when the natty could have been played in a warmer and more fitting place, such as a field on the state line between Cave Spring and Dugger Mountain?
So thank you, Jesus, as they say in the South, for the exquisitely named Stetson Bennett IV. Thank you for letting him whisk us away from the backrooms Monday night, spilling tears as he wrote a Waffle House-to-riches opus for every American who has been maligned and disrespected in life. He was supposed to be the reason Georgia would lose again to Alabama, why Kirby Smart would fall to 0-5 against mentor Nick Saban. Instead, a former walk-on who once transferred to a Mississippi junior college — and was so stung by criticism last season that he scrapped his smartphone for an abuse-free flip phone — refused to allow what could have been a killer fumble to impede his championship dream.
He responded by leading successive touchdown drives, of 75 and 62 yards, with two scoring passes that finished off the Saban dynasty as few quarterbacks have. Of all people to end a 41-year title drought in Athens, of all people to outduel Heisman Trophy winner and future NFL star Bryce Young, it was a lightly recruited scout-teamer who was forced to share a locker — No. 122A — with another scrub when he arrived.
Today, Michael Stipe and the R.E.M. homeboys might write an ode to Bennett, last seen crying on the sideline, awkwardly smoking a cigar and hugging random females in the stands after delivering a legendary performance in Georgia's 33-18 win. Maybe now, he'll buy an iPhone, so he can check out social media and bask in his new legend.
"I just knew there was no way I would let a turnover like that stop us from winning a national championship,'' said Bennett, still dabbing tears. "I wasn't going to be the reason we lost. I said, 'I've got to fix this.' ''
He brought not a Band-Aid but superglue, lasting forever, authorizing his home state to release decades of pent-up angst. But the Bennett story is more than regional or national. He's an inspiration for everyone. "I've always believed in myself. I think I'm the best quarterback, and I wanted to win a national championship here. I hope I give somebody a little hope,'' he said. "Just keep your mouth shut, keep working hard, focus, and things will work out. Life's tough. Keep fighting through it.''
"To think he would come this far, from the scout team to a national championship,'' said Smart, "wow, what a story.''
And about that flip phone? Why change his luck now? "They actually still sell them at Verizon stores,” Bennett said. "Apparently, a lot of old people still use them. I guess it was June or July, I went — I had a bunch of school coming up the next semester, I had football, and I was, like, I spend, whatever, an hour on my smartphone a day doing what? Doing nothing, nothing that’s going to help me. I’ve thought about it before. I’ve thought about it for years. And I was like, well, I’ve got all this stuff to do, all this important stuff. Let’s try not to let anything get in the way of that focus and just go get a flip phone.''
If only some of sport's biggest names, from Kevin Durant to LeBron James, would listen to Stetson Bennett IV. He is 23. He understands the hazards of social media. And he isn't afraid to cry in front of 20 million people, a more mature release than much of what we see in sports.
You'd have thought the prevailing narrative would be Smart, who brought the Alabama blueprint to his alma mater and turned a friend and former boss into a hard-boiled rival. Not until he whipped Saban would he earn acclaim as an elite coach. Smart had come close in building Georgia as a powerhouse, leading 20-7 in the third quarter of the 2017 title game … before Tua Tagovailoa crushed him in overtime with a game-winning touchdown on second-and-26. Just last month, armed with an all-time defense and a dominant 2021 ledger, the Dawgs took a 10-0 lead and somehow yielded 41 points to Young and the Crimson Tide. Before Monday night, in a startling statistic, Georgia had led or been tied in 171 of the 240 minutes the teams played. Was doomsday coming again? Even Uga X, the bulldog mascot, fell asleep as Alabama led at halftime behind the terror of linebacker Will Anderson Jr., who was leading relentless Tide blitzes against a battered Bennett.
But as we waited for Young to extend his Bama legacy, he couldn't answer Bennett, throwing an interception that led to a 79-yard TD return by Kelee Ringo. On the sideline, Smart executed a vertical leap we didn't know we had in him (36 inches, ESPN reported) before sprinting to meet Ringo in the end zone. Georgia, Georgia — sing along with Ray Charles — was going to win the natty, as the cool kids call it. No longer would the head coach be called Kirby Not-So Smart. And no longer will he be asked about his losing streak against Saban.
"This one will be with me much longer than the others,'' Smart said. "Before the game, I told them we burned the boats, and the only way to get home was through (Alabama). I've never been around a group of players who really wanted it so bad and wouldn't be denied.''
Then, channeling famed Georgia play-by-play announcer Larry Munson, Smart shouted to the gathered faithful: "There's going to be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight, baby.''
It was left for Saban to salute his disciple, sort of. After Smart left Tuscaloosa, he tried to woo an Alabama player to Georgia. Saban slammed the door, and since then, their relationship hasn't been the same. In every interview he did after the loss, St. Nick issued reminders that Smart was his former assistant. "I love Kirby. I'm proud of him and his program,'' he said. "If we had to lose a national championship, I'd rather lose to one of the former assistants who did a great job for us.'' For those bemoaning Alabama's unprecedented dominance — six titles and nine title-game berths in 13 years — at least they have a new story line to chew. Problem is, Alabama and Georgia now are interchangeable, alone at the top of the sport with supreme advantages in finances, facilities and recruiting influence. They are the heads of the Southeastern Conference snake, a conference that has won 12 of the last 16 national titles. They play the best brand of football beyond the NFL — and better than some pro teams — but that doesn't interest most people in the North, Midwest and West. No one should be amused when SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, asked "Who wins tonight?'' before the game, answered, "I do.''
This is where the adults can't fine-tune a sport that soon will be the second-richest in the industry, behind the NFL and ahead of the NBA and Major League Baseball. College football painfully needs parity, balance in all geographic regions, a hope that champions don't always speak with drawls —and occasionally are Group of 5 underdogs. USC should awaken from its slumber soon enough, awash in too much tradition, donor money and local high-school talent as Lincoln Riley cashes in. Ohio State isn't going anywhere, even if coach Ryan Day leaves for the Chicago Bears to coach up Justin Fields, one of the quarterbacks formerly in Bennett's way in Athens. But the SEC, soon to add Oklahoma and Texas after raiding the Big 12, continues to resist conferences that prefer playoff expansion to an eight-team model. Sankey, who does Saban's speaking for him, likes the four-team status quo — or a supersized College Football Playoff yielding several more SEC teams.
"If we are going to move off the four-team format, the proposed 12-team model works well and compared to others, works best,” Sankey said. "We’ll see if others are prepared to act. Seventy-five percent of the time, we are winning the championship under the current format. We are comfortable continuing in that mode.''
Of course, Saban and Smart would love the four-team status quo. It conveniently accommodates their programs every postseason, but it's a monopoly that diminishes national interest and TV ratings. As it is, the CFP geniuses turn the semifinals into an afterthought by playing games on New Year's Eve. By the time the championship game arrives, sports fans are focused on NFL playoff matchups and have lost interest in the kids. It wasn't a mirage inside Lucas Oil Stadium — the upper decks had banks of empty seats, a reminder of the absurdity of expecting all but diehards to brave winter weather to drive long distances to a cold-weather city. WTF? An eight-team tournament, even a 12-teamer, would sustain more buzz for a longer period. Don't hold your breath as conference commissioners and other heavyweights bicker behind closed doors.
"There are big enough (issues) that remain that we have a lot of work to do," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. "I am disappointed. ... There's holdouts for four, there's holdouts for eight, there's holdouts for 12. It's been a frustrating process."
"Candidly, given everything that’s been said publicly, looks like we are stuck at four for a while,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said.
The infighting is sad. The athletes are the ones energizing and sustaining the sport with compelling, lead-changing finishes. And while universities are depositing the fat TV checks and building gaudy football complexes, the players still aren't being compensated, except the fortunate few — such as Young — who've made handsome sums via their names, likenesses and images. Bennett only has a Non-fungible token to show for his NIL portfolio. The starter he replaced this season, five-star quarterback JT Daniels, approached $1 million in endorsement money.
What is so beautiful about this sport, amid the disarray and greed, is how a homespun story can cut through the subterfuge. It's possible Stetson Bennett IV is still in the stadium, confetti in his hair, golden trophy in his hands, not wanting his fairy tale to end.
"Bet on yourself,'' he said.
I prefer betting on him than the klutzes running the sport.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.